How Useful Are Natural Language Interfaces to the Semantic Web for Casual End-Users?

cluckvultureInternet and Web Development

Oct 20, 2013 (4 years and 8 months ago)


How Useful Are Natural Language Interfaces to
the Semantic Web for Casual End-Users?
Esther Kaufmann and Abraham Bernstein
Department of Informatics,University of Zurich,Switzerland
Abstract.Natural language interfaces offer end-users a familiar and
convenient option for querying ontology-based knowledge bases.Several
studies have shown that they can achieve high retrieval performance
as well as domain independence.This paper focuses on usability and
investigates if NLIs are useful from an end-user’s point of view.To that
end,we introduce four interfaces each allowing a different query language
and present a usability study benchmarking these interfaces.The results
of the study reveal a clear preference for full sentences as query language
and confirm that NLIs are useful for querying Semantic Web data.
1 Introduction
The need to make the contents of the Semantic Web accessible to end-users
becomes increasingly pressing as the amount of information stored in ontology-
based knowledge bases steadily increases.Natural language interfaces (NLIs)
provide a means of querying access to casual end-users without having them to
learn RDF,OWL,SPARQL,or other logic-based languages.While NLIs hide the
formality of ontologies and query languages from end-users by offering them a
familiar and intuitive way of query formulation,the realization of NLIs involves
various problems:
– Due to linguistic variability and ambiguities,for which natural languages
(NLs) are infamous,the development of accurate NLIs is a very complex and
time-consuming task that requires extraordinary design and implementation
efforts.Nevertheless,by restricting and controlling the query language such
that the end-user has to follow it or engage the user in query formulation dia-
logues,we can eliminate linguistic variability [6,22].Moreover,the semantics
that is contained in ontologies can provide the context needed to overcome
– Good NLIs are often domain- or application-tailored,which makes them
hardly adaptable and portable.However,if we extract the necessary infor-
mation to analyse a user’s NL query from a knowledge base,NLIs become
domain-independent or,at least,easily adaptable to new domains [3,9].
– The retrieval performance (in terms of precision and recall) of a NLI is
directly linked to the portability problem.The more a system is tailored to
a domain,the better its retrieval performance is.The goal,however,is to
K.Aberer et al.(Eds.):ISWC/ASWC 2007,LNCS 4825,pp.281–294,2007.
￿Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2007
282 E.Kaufmann and A.Bernstein
build portable NLI without sacrificing retrieval quality because end-users
would not accept unreliable and inaccurate interfaces.
– Repeatedly held discussions in the NLI literature raise the issue of the useful-
ness of NILs.Even if we design a well-performing and domain-independent
NLI,it remains unclear if it is approved and adopted by end-users.In the
time of Google and graphical user interfaces,where people are used to for-
mulating their information needs with keywords and then browse through
dozens of answers to find the appropriate one or to clicking through menus
and graphically displayed functions,full-fledged NLIs may be redundant.
Though we have identified four problem dimensions regarding NLIs—and there
may be other—we think that NLIs are a promising option for casual end-users
to interact with logic-based knowledge bases.Several projects have shown that
NLIs can perform well in retrieval tasks [12,20,24] and be portable as well as
domain-independent [9,18,26] without being unnecessarily complex.This paper
now attempts to shed some light on the problem dimension of usability and
usefulness of NLIs (i.e.,the last of the four issues raised above).To that end,
we have implemented four interfaces,which are portable,domain-independent,
and exhibit good performance,to conduct a comprehensive usability study.The
four interfaces are simple in design,avoid complex configurations,and extract
the knowledge needed to analyse input queries from OWL knowledge bases.
Each interface supports a different query language with a different degree of
restriction and formality.We benchmarked the four systems against each other in
a usability study with 48 subjects providing us with an answer to the question
about the usefulness of NLIs from an end-user’s point of view.Consequently,
our contribution is that we investigate if NLIs to Semantic Web data are in
fact useful for and approved by casual end-users.Note that we refer to casual
end-users as defined in [4].
The remainder of the paper is structured as follows.First,we introduce each
of the four interfaces and explain their major characteristics.We,then,describe
the usability study in section 3,in which the four systems are benchmarked
against each other,and discuss the results,which leads to the discussion of some
limitations of our approach as well as future work in section 4.The paper closes
with a section on related work and conclusions.
2 Four Different Query Interfaces to the Semantic Web
Given our premise that NLIs are only useful for casual end-users if they are
actually approved and,therefore,used by them,we conducted a usability study
with four query interfaces implemented for that purpose:Ginseng,NLP-Reduce,
Querix,and Semantic Crystal.Each interface requires a different query language
regarding its freedom,naturalness,and formality:ranging from keywords to
complete English sentences,from menu-based options to a graphically displayed
query language.In the following,we describe each of the four systems beginning
with the interface that has the least restrictive and most natural query language,
then continuing with the systems that feature more restricted query languages,
and closing with the system requiring a formal,graphical query language.
How Useful Are Natural Language Interfaces to the Semantic Web 283
2.1 NLP-Reduce
NLP-Reduce is a “na¨ıve” and completely domain-independent NLI for querying
Semantic Web knowledge bases [16].It is called na¨ıve because the approach is
simple and processes NL queries as bag of words only employing a reduced set of
NL processing techniques,such as stemming and synonym expansion (hence its
name NLP-Reduce).The interface allows users to enter keywords (e.g.,“Chinese
restaurant San Francisco”),sentence fragments (e.g.,“Chinese restaurants that
are in San Francisco”),or full English sentences (e.g.,“Which Chinese restaurants
are in San Francisco?”).
A query is first reduced by removing stopwords as well as punctuation marks
and stemming the rest of the words.The system then tries to identify triple
structures in the rest of the query words and match them to the synonym-
enhanced triple store that is generated from an OWL knowledge base when
loaded into NLP-Reduce.The identified triples are joined and translated into
SPARQL statements.To execute the SPARQL query,NLP-Reduce uses Jena
and the Pellet Reasoner.
After executing the query,the results (including the
URIs) and some execution statistics are displayed to the user (see Fig.1).
When generating the triple store from a knowledge base,NLP-Reduce also
obtaines synonyms from WordNet providing the users with a larger vocabulary
that can be deployed when querying.This leads to better usability and eases
the interface’s limitation of being dependent on the quality and choice of the vo-
cabulary used in knowledge bases.The weakness,however,is also the interface’s
major strength,as it does not need any adaption for new knowledge bases and
is completely portable.From an end-user’s point of view,the major advantage
of the system is that it is robust to ungrammatical and deficient input.
Fig.1.The NLP-Reduce user interface
Fig.2.The Querix user interface
2.2 Querix
Querix is a domain-independent NLI that requires full English questions as query
language [17].Compared to a logic-based NLI,Querix does not try to resolve
Larger images of each interface can be found at:
284 E.Kaufmann and A.Bernstein
NL ambiguities,but asks the user for clarification in a dialog window if an
ambiguity occurs in the input query.The user acts the role of the druid Getafix
(hence the name Querix) who is consulted by Asterix,Obelix and the other
villagers whenever anything strange occurs.A strange event within Querix is an
ambiguity.The person composing a query benefits from the clarification dialog
by better retrieval results.
The systemuses a parser to analyse the input query.Fromthe parser’s syntax
tree,a query skeleton is extracted,in which triple patterns are identified.Based
on pattern matching algorithms that rely on the relationships that exist between
the elements in a knowledge base,the triple patterns are then matched to the
resources in the knowledge base.The matching and joining of the triples is
controlled by domain and range information.Fromthe joined triples,a SPARQL
query is generated that can be executed by Jena.Using WordNet,synoyms of the
words in the query and the labels in the knowledge base are included,providing
an enhanced query language vocabulary and a better matching.
If Querix encounters an ambiguity in a query,i.e.,several semantically differ-
ent SPARQL queries could be generated for a single NL query,the clarification
dialog of the interface pops up showing the different meanings for the ambiguous
element in a menu (Fig.2).The user can now choose the intended meaning,and
the interface executes the corresponding SPARQL query.Consider,for example,
the query “What is the biggest state in the US?”,in which the word “biggest”
can refer to the properties statePopulation,statePopulationDensity,and
stateArea of a knowledge base containing geographical information.If the user
selects statePopulation,the answer to the query is “California;” if stateArea
is selected,the answer Querix returns is different,namely “Alaska.”
2.3 Ginseng
Ginseng - a guided input natural language search engine allows users to query
OWL knowledge bases using a controlled input language akin to English [5,7].
Basing on a grammar,the system’s incremental parser offers the possible com-
pletions of a user’s entry by presenting the user with choice pop-up boxes (as
shown in Fig.3).These pop-up menus offer suggestions on how to complete a
current word or what the next word might be.The possible choices get reduced
as the user continues typing.
Entries that are not in the pop-up list are ungrammatical and not accepted
by the system.In this way,Ginseng guides the user through the set of possi-
ble questions preventing those unacceptable by the grammar.Once a query is
completed,Ginseng translates the entry to SPARQL statements,executes them
against the ontology model using Jena,and displays the SPARQL query as well
as the answer to the user.
When starting Ginseng,all knowledge bases in a predefined search path are
loaded and the grammar compiler generates a dynamic grammar rule for every
class,property,and instance.These dynamic rules enable the display of the
labels used in the ontology in the pop-up boxes.While the static grammar rules
provide the basic sentence structures for questions,the dynamic rules allow that
How Useful Are Natural Language Interfaces to the Semantic Web 285
certain non-terminal symbols of the static rules can be “filled” with terminal
symbols (i.e.,the labels) that are extracted from the ontology model.As such,
Ginseng is domain-independent and highly portable.
Ginseng also allows that synonyms of the labels used in the ontology model can
be included by annotating the ontology with additional tags from the ginseng
namespace.For each synonym,Ginseng also generates a dynamic grammar rule.
While such annotations are not necessary for Ginseng to run correctly,they
extend its vocabulary and increase its usability.Additionally,they reduce the
limitation that the approach depends on the choice of vocabulary,when an on-
tology was built.In fact,the more meaningful the labels of an ontology are
chosen,the wider and more useful the vocabulary provided by Ginseng is.More
information on Ginseng and its ontology editor extension GINO can be found
in [5,7].
2.4 Semantic Crystal
Our last interface has the most formal and most restrictive query language of
the four systems.In order to compare the other NLIs with a formal approach,
but keeping in mind that casual end-users are better at understanding graphical
query interfaces than formal query languages [23],we implemented Semantic
Crystal.The name is an homage to Spoerri’s InfoCrystal,a graphically-based
query tool for Boolean and vector space information retrieval [23].
Semantic Crystal is newand not yet documented in the literature.The domain-
independent interface can be used for querying any OWL-based knowledge base
that is locally stored or on the web.It displays the ontology model to the user
as shown on the left side of Fig.4,which is a very advantageous feature for the
end-user.A query is composed by clicking on elements in the graph and selecting
elements from menus.Once an element has been selected,the interface presents
it on the query graph dashboard on the upper right side of the user interface.The
user can then continue assembling the query either on the dashboard or in the
graph representation of the ontology model.
When clicking on a class (represented by the orange elements in the graph),
the interface lists all properties of the class enabling the user to select only valid
Fig.3.The Ginseng user interface
Fig.4.The Semantic Crystal user interface
286 E.Kaufmann and A.Bernstein
ones.The interface incrementally generates textual SPARQL query statements
for the current state of the graphically constructed query;the SPARQL state-
ments are exhibited on the bottom of the right side of the user interface.In the
case of datatype properties (the green properties in the menu list),a user can
additionally specify whether the property’s value should be used as restriction
or as output.If the output is specified,the query can be executed and the result
is shown to the user in a new tab.Jena is again applied for query execution.
On the dashboard in Fig.4,we see a complete graphical representation of the
query:“Give me the titles of the movies that have an actor with the family name
’Depp’ and that were distributed in the year 2000.”
3 The Usability Study
The goal of the usability study was to investigate how useful NLIs were to find
data in Semantic Web knowledge bases in comparison with each other and a
formal query language.Casual end-users should test and assess the usability
of each of the four systems and,in particular,their query languages.As such,
we let casual end-users perform the same retrieval tasks with each tool and
find out which query language they liked best,which query language they liked
least,and why.Furthermore,we examined the time they spent to perform the
tasks and how successful they were with each system.To recall the range of
query languages and their features provided by our interfaces,we summarize
them here:
– NLP-Reduce:keywords,sentence fragments,and full sentences
– Querix:full sentences
– Ginseng:predetermined and menu-based words/sentences
– Semantic Crystal:graphically displayed,clickable,formal query language
3.1 Experimental Setup
To benchmark the four interfaces in a controlled experiment,we promoted the
usability study on the websites of our department and university.We,addition-
ally,promoted the study by billboard advertisements,which we distributed in
Zurich.We ended up with 48 subjects almost evenly distributed over a wide
range of backgrounds and professions:bankers,biologists,computer scientists,
economists,game programmers,housewives,journalists,language teachers,me-
chanical engineers,musicians,pedagogues,psychologists,secretaries,sociolo-
gists,veterinarians,video artists,unemployed persons to name some of them
(in alphabetical order).There was a normal distribution of age ranging from 19
to 52 years with a mean of 27.6 years.With 48 users we were able to cover each
possible order of the four systems not just once but twice,a fact that increases
the overall statistical significance of the results (see below).
For each interface the users were asked to perform the same tasks:They had
to reformulate four questions presented to them as sentence fragments into the
respective query language required by the four systems and enter the questions
How Useful Are Natural Language Interfaces to the Semantic Web 287
into the interfaces.The four questions were principally the same for each system,
but we slightly changed them to make the overall experiment more interesting
for the users.For example,one question was “area of Alaska?” given for NLP-
Reduce and “area of Georgia?” for Querix etc.The four question templates were:
– area of Alaska?
– number of lakes in Florida?
– states that have city named Springfield?
– rivers run through state that has largest city in US?
In principle,each interface is able to answer all four queries.Each system does,
however,“stumble” across one of the queries such that,for example,more than
one query is needed to retrieve the correct result.For every user,we changed the
order in which the interfaces were presented as well as the order of the queries
for each system to prevent any learning effects from influencing the results.
After completing the questions with each interface,users were asked to answer
the SUS questionnaire.SUS is a standardized usability test [8] containing ten
standardized questions (e.g.,”I think that the interface was easy to use.”),each
answered on a 5-point Likert scale establishing a person’s impression regarding
a user interface.The test covers a variety of usability aspects,such as the need
for support,training,and complexity.The result of the questionnaire is a value
between 1 and 100,where 1 signifies that a user found a systemabsolutely useless
and 100 that a user found a system optimally useful.
After testing and judging all interfaces,users were explicitly asked to fill in a
comparison questionnaire in which they were asked which NLI they liked best
and which one they liked least;they were asked the analogous questions regard-
ing the query languages.We also asked them about the motivations for their
choices.At the end of the overall experiment,people were requested to answer a
number of demographic questions such as age,gender,profession,knowledge of
informatics,knowledge of linguistics,knowledge of formal query languages,and
knowledge of English.
To provide an introduction to the query languages of the interfaces,users
were given 1-page instructions for each system.Hence,the procedure of the
experiment for each user was the following:(1) read some introductory notes on
the overall experiment,(2) read instructions on the query language of the first
interface,(3) reformulate,enter,and execute four queries with the first interface,
(4) fill in the SUS questionnaire for the first interface,(5) proceed by repeating
steps 2 to 4 with the second,third,and fourth interface,(5) fill in the comparison
questionnaire,(6) and finally provide answers to the demographic questions.The
overall experiment took about 45 to 60 minutes.Using the Morae Software,
were able to remotely record the desktop of the users as well as log and time
each of their key entries and mouse clicks.
The experiment was based on the Mooney Natural Language Learning Data
[24].Its geography database consists of a knowledge base that contains geograph-
ical information about the US and their logical representations.We chose the
288 E.Kaufmann and A.Bernstein
data set because it covers a domain that can easily be understood by casual users
and does not demand expert knowledge.To make the knowledge base accessible
to our interfaces,we translated it to OWL and designed a simple class structure
as meta model.
3.2 Results of the Experiment
The data we collected in the experiment was analysed quantitatively as well as
qualitatively.For the quantitative analysis,we used ANOVA and Mixed Linear
Regression Models as available in the R-Software
and its lme4-package.
first part of the results is summarized in Table 1.
Table 1.Average time,number of queries,and success/failure rate results
avg time for
avg time
avg number
avg success
avg failure
all 4 queries
per query
of queries
2 min 39 sec
23.54 sec
69.27 %
30.73 %
4 min 11 sec
29.31 sec
77.08 %
22.92 %
6 min 06 sec
34.82 sec
63.54 %
36.46 %
Semantic Crystal
9 min 43 sec
89.53 sec
54.86 %
45.14 %
p-value (single factor)
ANOVA with 4 levels)
Most strikingly,our results are more than highly significant,which is due to
the high number of users and the double coverage of every possible interface as
well as query order.The first column shows that users were significantly fastest
when entering the four queries with NLP-Reduce (p = 1.56e-26).This outcome
is obvious as the query language of NLP-Reduce imposes least constraints on
the user and allows entering the queries with least words.Users spent most time
when working with Semantic Crystal demonstrating that the intellectual burden
of composing semantically and syntactically appropriate formal queries lies ex-
clusively with the user,whereas the other three systems carry the burden to some
extent.The average time that was spent per query nicely mirrors the increasing
degree of formality and restrictiveness of the interfaces’ query languages.
We can see in column 3 that it took users on average 7.02 queries to find
answers to the four questions given in the experiment with Semantic Crystal and
11.06 query trials with Ginseng.NLP-Reduce and Querix lie in between and close
to each other.The high number of query trials in Ginseng is a result of its query
language’s restrictiveness causing users to repeatedly reformulate and execute
their queries in a kind of backtracking behavior.The log files revealed that the
lowest number of query trials in Semantic Crystal emerged from users giving up
and not willing to keep trying until an appropriate query was composed.
The average success and failure rates indicate how many of the four queries
retrieved a satisfying answer from the users’ perspective (i.e.,the user thought
How Useful Are Natural Language Interfaces to the Semantic Web 289
Table 2.Results of SUS and comparison questionnaires
ave SUS
liked best
liked least
liked best
liked least
12.50 %
25.00 %
18.75 %
25.00 %
66.67 %
2.08 %
60.42 %
4.17 %
6.25 %
12.50 %
16.67 %
12.50 %
Semantic Crystal
14.58 %
60.42 %
4.17 %
58.33 %
p-value (single factor
ANOVA with four levels)
that she/he had found the correct answer).Though Semantic Crystal in fact
provides more precise answers than its competitors,the success rate of only
54.86%is due to inappropriate and invalid query formulations.The best success
rate achieved by Querix from the users’ point of view is due to Querix’s answer
display.For example,if a user enters a query “How many rivers run through
Colorado?”,the answer of Querix is:“There are 10.”,while the other three
interfaces show a list with the names of ten rivers and the number of results
found.Some users specifically pointed out in the questionnaires that they trusted
the answers of Querix more because the NL answer created the impression that
the system “understood” the query.
Using the regression model,we found that the order of the four queries and
the knowledge of informatics,linguistics,formal query languages,and English
did not significantly affect the time.While there was no correlation between the
variable gender and the average time spent per query either,the variable age
influenced the average time:With every year a user’s age grows,the average
time to reformulate a query increases by 3.30 seconds (p = 0.010).
Table 2 contains the results of the SUS and the comparison questionnaires.
Querix achieved the highest average SUS score of 75.73 and significantly outper-
formed the other three interfaces (p = 7.36e-17).The graphical query interface
Semantic Crystal did not get much appreciation,which is reflected in the aver-
age SUS score of 36.09.NLP-Reduce and Ginseng achieved similar SUS scores
somewhere in the middle of the other two NLIs;their scores do not significantly
differ fromeach other (paired,one-tailed t-Test:p = 0.356).It is no surprise that
66.67%of the users liked the Querix interface best and only 2.08% liked it least,
even if this result is not significant (columns 2 and 3 in Table 2).Querix obtained
almost the same feedback for its query language (QL),this time reaching statis-
tical significance (columns 4 and 5).Even though 60.42% of the users disliked
Semantic Crystal as query interface when comparing it to the other three NLIs,
a surprising portion of 14.58% assessed Semantic Crystal as favorite interface.
The graphically displayed knowledge base was found useful by five users.Only
12.50% liked NLP-Reduce best and 6.25% Ginseng.With respect to the query
language,the results show the same ranking as the SUS scores except for the
query language liked least.Here,the keywords provided by NLP-Reduce were
more disliked (25.00%) than the restricted query language of Ginseng (12.50%).
We can,therefore,hypothesize that the full freedom of keyword-based query
languages is less suitable for casual end-users,since it does not support the
290 E.Kaufmann and A.Bernstein
user in the process of query formulation.The overall preference for Querix may
further reflect this query language tradeoff between freedom that can produce
confusion and restrictiveness that can enable guidance.
The regression analysis showed that with each second spent more with a
system,the SUS score dropped by 0.06 (p = 1.79e-09),whereas the number
of queries used,the success/failure rate,and the order of the queries did not
influence the SUS ratings.The order in which the interfaces were presented to
the user,however,made an impact:The system that was tested last always
obtained a higher SUS score (p = 0.0025),i.e.,an increase by 5.3.Knowledge
of informatics was the only additional variable that also influenced the SUS
ratings:The better the knowledge of informatics of a user was,the higher the
SUS score turned out for each interface (p = 0.0029).
When categorizing and counting the comments that users gave in the com-
parison questionnaire,the most often-named comments for each interface were
the following:
– NLP-Reduce:+easy,+no training necessary,–QL not apparent,–QL too
– Querix:+obvious and non-constraining QL,+full sentences possible,+asks
for clarification,–full sentences too restrictive
– Ginseng:+easy,+supports the user,–QL too restrictive,–fewsentence struc-
ture possibilities
– Semantic Crystal:+graphical display of data,–too complex,–too laborious,
–much training necessary
3.3 Discussion of the Most Remarkable Results
The results of the usability study with 48 users clearly show that Querix and its
query language requiring full English questions was judged to be the most useful
and best-liked query interface.This finding contradicts another usability study
investigating different query languages and showing that students generally pre-
ferred keyword-based search over full-questions search [21].The users in that
study declared that they would only accept full query sentences if the retrieval
results were better.In contrast,our results exhibit a highly significant preference
for full-sentence queries independent of the retrieval performance.
One of the most prominent qualitative results was that several users,who
rated Querix as best interface,explicitly stated that they appreciated the “free-
dom of the query language.” Nevertheless,full sentences are more restrictive
than keywords and sentence fragments meaning that the query language of NLP-
Reduce actually offers more freedomand less restriction than Querix.There may
be two reasons for the comment:(1) With full-sentence questions,users can com-
municate their information need in a familiar and natural way without having
to think of appropriate keywords in order to find what they are looking for.(2)
People can express more semantics when they use full sentences and not just key-
words.Using verbs and prepositions to link loosely listed nouns enables semantic
associations,which users may experience as more freedom in query formulation.
How Useful Are Natural Language Interfaces to the Semantic Web 291
Though Semantic Crystal was assessed as difficult and laborious to use,some
users pointed out the advantage of graphically displayed knowledge bases and
queries.Consequently,we should consider interfaces to Semantic Web data that
offer a combination of graphically displayed and NL query languages.A user
could then choose between different querying possibilities.Furthermore,we
might have to think of adequate NL answer generation components [2],which
seems to increase a user’s trust in a system and the overall user satisfaction.
4 Limitations and Future Work
We are well aware that our usability study does not provide a definitive answer
to the discussion of the usefulness of NLIs.We deliberately omitted both a
retrieval performance evaluation and a portability evaluation of our systems
concentrating only on the dimension of usability.The former two evaluations
have partially been done for some of the systems and their completion is part of
our future work.
Concerning valid conclusions to be drawn from a usability study,we would
still need a more comprehensive usability study with more users to cover more
precisely distinguished degrees of query languages along a well-defined formality
continuum.To prevent influences from variables that are not directly linked to
the query languages,the NLIs should be the same except for the query languages.
In our study the appearance of the interfaces was different.
We limited ourselves to four interfaces and four queries for several reasons.
First,we wanted to cover each possible tool order;consider that a usability
study with five different interfaces requires 120 users to cover each order of
the interfaces.Second,we preferred to not overload the users in an exhaustive
experiment risking to taint the results due to fatigue.Last,our users should not
be students (like in most usability studies),but people representing a general
public.Finding such users is a difficult,time-consuming,and also expensive
endeavor,since we offered our users a small monetary reward for taking part.
We still believe that our usability study provides a substantial contribution
to the discussion of how useful NLIs are for casual end-users.Motivated by the
work of [27],we will,therefore,develop and implement a combined interface as
described above and conduct further usability studies in the future.
5 Related Work
NLIs have been developed since the 70s,but oftentimes with moderate success
[3,25],which resulted in a decreasing interest in the topic in the 90s.The ne-
cessity for robust and applicable NLIs has become more acute in recent years
as the amount of information has grown steadily and immensely.A number of
well-performing NLIs to databases emerged [1,10,13,14,19,20].Considering the
difficulties with full NL,it seems comprehensible that restricted NL or menu-
guided interfaces have been proposed by some approaches [14,22,25].The pop-
ularity of the Semantic Web created a number of NLIs that provide access to
292 E.Kaufmann and A.Bernstein
ontology-based knowledge bases [9,11,12,15,18,26].Most of the evaluations of
NLIs mainly focus on retrieval performance and/or the portability dimension.
As our work concentrates on usability,we will only discuss three closely related
projects that conducted a usability study:ORAKEL,Squirrel,and CHESt.
ORAKEL by Cimiano and colleagues [9] is a portable NLI to knowledge bases
that is ontology-based in two ways.First,it uses an ontology in the inference
process to answer users’ queries.Second,the system employs an ontology in
the process of adapting the system to a domain and a specific knowledge base.
This adaptation is performed by domain experts and has been evaluated in a
user study.It was shown that people without any NLI expertise could adapt
ORAKEL by generating a domain-specific lexicon in an iterative process.The
controlled study involved 26 users from both academic and industrial institu-
tions.Results were reported in terms of recall and precision showing that the
iterative methodology to lexicon customization was indeed successful.A second
experiment was performed to determine the linguistic coverage of 454 questions
asked by end-users.They report an excellent coverage of 93%,but did not in-
vestigate the usefulness from the end-users’ point of view.
The Squirrel system presented by Duke et al.[11] is a search and browse
interface to semantically annotated data.It allows combined search facilities
consisting of keyword-based and semantic search in order to balance between
the convenience for end-users and the power of semantic search.Users can enter
free text terms,see immediate results,and follow with a refinement of their
query by selecting from a set of matching entities that are associated with the
result set and returned by the system on the basis of an ontology.Squirrel has
been evaluated in three steps:(1) in a heuristic evaluation,in which usability
experts judged the interface according to a list of usability heuristics,(2) in a
walk-through evaluation,where users were asked to complete a number of tasks,
while their actions were recorded,and (3) in a set of field tests giving users
information seeking tasks and collecting feedback.Promising results obtained
from 20 users are reported:Squirrel achieved an average perceived information
quality of 4.47 on a 7-point scale.It was rated positively regarding its properties
but skeptically in terms of performance and speed.Regrettably,the authors
provide neither a detailed description of the evaluations nor explicit results.
The core of the work by Reichert and her colleagues [21] lies in a usabil-
ity study,making it most closely related to our work.They investigate how
students assess the possibility of querying a multimedia knowledge base by en-
tering full questions instead of just keywords.For this purpose,two versions of
the e-learning question-answering tool CHESt were implemented.The first ver-
sion offers a keyword-based search;the second version allows a semantic search
with full sentences as query input.They conducted three task-oriented experi-
ment sessions with 18,18,and 14 students and benchmarked the two versions
of CHESt.The outcome of the three sessions is that the students generally pre-
ferred the keyword-based search to the full questions search (76% on average).
This was found to be independent of the appropriateness of the results.The
students reported that they would use the option of complete questions if this
yielded in better results.Nonetheless,the authors conclude that the intellectual
How Useful Are Natural Language Interfaces to the Semantic Web 293
task of thinking and formulating full-sentence queries must not necessarily be
considered as a burden compared to entering loose keywords.We can confirm
this conclusion from our usability study,which presents a wider choice of query
languages,and draw even more detailed conclusions.
The approaches in the field of NLIs nicely show that such interfaces can suc-
cessfully tackle the performance and transportability dimension.As such,they
complement our findings,which focuses on the usability dimension.However,
more work is needed regarding NLIs to Semantic Web data and further compre-
hensive usability studies to investigate the end-users’s perspective.
6 Conclusions
This paper attempted to answer the question if NLIs are actually useful for ca-
sual end-users.While most studies concerning NLIs to structured data aim at
high-quality retrieval performance and transportability,we focused on the us-
ability dimension.Our usability study with 48 users and four interfaces featuring
four different query languages showed that the full-sentence query option was
significantly preferred to keywords,a menu-guided,and a graphical query lan-
guage.NLIs offering an adequate query language can,therefore,be considered
to be indeed useful for casual end-users.We believe that our study generally
shows the potential of NLIs for end-user access to the Semantic Web,providing
a chance to offer the Semantic Web’s capabilities to the general public.
Acknowledgement.This work was partially supported by the Swiss National
Science Foundation (200021-100149/1).
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